Takis, Greek artist who harnessed the power of magnetism, dies at 93

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An exhibition of the works of the Greek artist called Takis promised sensory experiences that for generations would have been unknown in the contemplative stillness of an art museum.

“Wheels whirl,” read a New York Times description of a Takis exhibit in 1969. “Dials quiver. And magnetized needles send electronic mating calls. There’s no lack of sound and action in a busy new show” by Takis, an innovator who thrived at the intersection of art and science and became a foremost exponent of the movement known as kinetic art.

Takis — his legal name was Panayiotis Vassilakis — was enjoying a burst of attention, with a retrospective underway at the Tate Modern in London, when he died Aug. 9 in Athens at 93.

His death was confirmed by Menia Kouli, director of public affairs for the Athens-based Takis Foundation, a nonprofit organization promoting the arts and sciences that the artist founded in 1986. Other details were not immediately available.

A self-described “instinctive scholar,” Takis began creating sculptures in his 20s, in the aftermath of World War II, drawing his early inspiration from sources as diverse as Greek antiquity and the modernist masterpieces of Pablo Picasso.

He worked primarily in plaster and wrought iron before becoming fascinated by magnetism, electricity and sound — and how those unseen forces animate the physical world and how they might also breathe life into his artistic creations.

“For Takis,” reads a description of his work on the online database Artsy, “electromagnetism is a unifying force, which runs through all bodies, and which he celebrates in art that, in his words, ‘binds together in space, objects, metals, roaming particles of the cosmos.’ ”

With his interest in motion in artwork, Takis joined the movement known as kinetic art, touched off in 1913 when the French artist Marcel Duchamp had what he called “the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn,” creating the work ” Bicycle Wheel .”

Takis spent much of his early artistic career in Paris and London and came to the fore in the mid-1950s with a series of sculptures called “Signals.” He assembled them from antennae or antennae-like structures, topping the delicate rods with bits of industrial detritus. They “could be imagined,” according to a description of one such piece at the Tate Modern, “to be receiving and transmitting messages of far-off, cosmic events.”

Magnets and magnetism would becoming defining elements of his work for decades. So, too, was sound, such as the haunting noise created by a nail drawn by a magnet to a guitar string, or by a piano string blown by the wind.

“It’s hard not to use the word ‘magic’ about the art of Takis,” the British art critic Jonathan Jones wrote in a Guardian review of the Tate Modern exhibit. “A nail floats motionless in space. A cylinder and a ball dance jerkily with each other. Angelic music is played with no sign of a human hand. Yet none of this is the work of the supernatural, nor is Takis trying to fool anyone into thinking that it is. The force that gives his art its innocent joy is part of the fabric of the universe.”

Takis,” he wrote, “is like a curious child who won’t stop investigating what we jaded adults take for granted.”

The works of Takis, although better known in Europe than in the United States, were displayed at institutions including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Menil Collection in Houston, as well as at the Centre Pompidou and Jeu de Paume in Paris. They fetched more than $100,000 at auction, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“I felt like I was in the presence of a kind of shaman, somebody who had a much more finely tuned awareness of the soup of signals in which we all swim now,” Toby Kamps, the curator of a 2015 exhibition at the Menil Collection, told the Houston Chronicle. “Takis knows who he is, and I believe him.”

Panayiotis Vassilakis was born in Athens on Oct. 29, 1925. His family did not support his artistic ambitions, according to a biography on his foundation’s website, and yet he forged ahead, moving to Paris in the mid-1950s and joining an artistic circle that also included Jean Tinguely , another pioneer of kinetic art.

In 1960, he captured the attention of the Paris art world by using a large magnet to suspend South African writer Sinclair Beiles in midair in a dramatic performance at the city’s Iris Clert Gallery.

“Our collaboration was to show that, after all, you don’t have to go to space as we are already in space ourselves,” Takis told the Journal. “By thinking that way, we got to space quicker than Yuri Gagarin,” the Soviet cosmonaut.

In the late 1960s, Takis was recruited to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where during a fellowship he developed the scientific undergirdings of his artistic work. The next year, he attracted notice when he and friends forcibly removed one of his installations from MoMA in protest of museum policies that he regarded as unfair to artists. He became an outspoken advocate for artists’ rights.

He had two children — a son, Thanos Vassilakis, from a marriage to artist Liliane Lijn that ended in divorce, and a daughter, Anna Fell, from a relationship with artist Sheila Fell. Complete information on his marriages and survivors was not immediately available.

The magnet and the attraction of love are one and the same thing,” Takis once said, according to Forbes magazine. “A magnet is not just an idea; it’s something very concrete and alive: this bond, this attraction established between two forms or two objects, constitutes a fantastic force of communication.”

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